Tuesday, June 12, 2012

'Mad Men' and the infantilization of American culture

A perfect image.
When 'Mad Men' premiered a few years back, one of the things that its fans celebrated was the show's old-fashioned sense of adulthood: Don Draper smoked, drank, dressed well, and only occasionally seemed to notice that his children existed. "Remember when men were men!" we barked, and if nobody actually said those words, well, that's what a lot of people seemed to mean.

We've all expected the show to depict the rise of youth culture as the '60s wore on, and that theme was indeed explicit in the just-finished Season Five. We witness Don being out of his element at a Rolling Stones concert, befuddled by a Beatles record, chafing at his wife's out-of-office ambitions. It's in his marriage to Meagan, though, that we see something that doesn't get talked about a lot: Yes, the older generation hated the Peter Pan frivolousness of the Baby Boomers. But that older generation really helped create and nurture that frivolousness, as well.

Don's job, after all, is to create fantasies. And fantasies are often, in the end, the realm of childhood—a way of dreaming about "someday" and "what could be" instead of what actually is. (In some ways, too, Draper is a fantasy, dreamed up by a guy named Dick Whitman.) And the younger generation finds itself increasingly unable to tear itself away from those fantasies.

Take Meagan. When we saw her at the end of Season Four she was young, yes, but clearly a woman, even maternal with Don's kids. That's why he asked her to marry him. But as Season Five progressed, Meagan seemed to regress—from an adult who worked and dressed like an adult, back into a teen whose fashion choices were barely discernible from that of Don's adolescent daughter, till finally she ended up dressed like a princess, playing make-believe in her final scene of the season. This, after she pouted at her mother for not getting everything she wants.

And Meagan was playing princess, incidentally, in a commercial—a fantasy—constructed by Don Draper.

It was, in some ways, the saddest and most melancholy scene of the season—ranking right up there with Lane Pryce's suicide. (Er, spoiler.) Contrast that with one of the most joyful and fun scenes of the season: Don and Joan's trip to a local bar. (Giving us the near-perfect pop-cultural image above.)

Yes, there's an element of fantasy there, too. But what makes the scene satisfying is not that two incredibly sexy people flirt. It's that they don't do anything about it. They have responsibilities, to their business, to their loved ones, and they behave—ultimately—like self-possessed adults.

Maybe that's the fantasy these days, that we can all act like grownups. God knows, I'm about Don Draper's age, yet I feel adolescent next to him. But if Don's generation is grumpy with the immaturity of the kids who came after, they shouldn't feel too self-righteous. They created the fantasies, and made the promises they couldn't keep.

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